South Carolina Drug Warriors Routinely Serving Regular Warrants Like No-Knock Warrants

Radley Balko is uncovering more rights violations and more law enforcement falsehoods with his coverage of South Carolina resident Julian Betton’s lawsuit against the Myrtle Beach-area drug task force. Betton’s house was raided by the drug unit after a confidential informant made two pot purchases for a total of $100. The police didn’t have a no-knock warrant, but they acted like they did, going from zero to hail-of-gunfire in mere seconds. (via FourthAmendment.com)

On April 16, 2015, the task force battered Betton’s door open with a ram, then almost immediately opened fire, releasing at least 29 bullets, nine of which hit Betton. One bullet pierced a back wall in the building, sped across a nearby basketball court and landed in the wall of another house. (This was a multi-family building.)

Betton was hit several times. He didn’t die, but he doesn’t have much left in working order. He lost part of his gallbladder, colon, and rectum. His liver, pancreas and small intestine all suffered damage. His left leg was broken along with one of his vertebrae.

The cops immediately set about justifying their extreme tactics. First, they claimed Betton fired at them, but ballistics tests showed Betton’s gun hadn’t been fired. Then they claimed he pointed a gun at them, but did not fire it. This could have easily been proven if any of the task force had bothered to activate their body cameras before breaking Betton’s door down. But the footage shows no cameras were activated until after the task force stopped firing.

The task force used a regular search warrant, meaning the officers were supposed to knock and announce their presence. Nearly all of them said they followed these stipulations. Video from Betton’s home security camera (which can be seen at the Washington Post) caught all these officers in a lie.

These 11 seconds of footage from that camera show that no member of the task force knocked on Betton’s door.

The video lacks audio, but both the Myrtle Beach police chief and a federal magistrate have since concluded that the video also strongly suggests there was no announcement. None of the officers’ lips appear to be moving, and it all happens very quickly. At best, they announced themselves simultaneously or nearly simultaneously, with the battering ram hitting the door.

A neighbor who was on Betton’s sidewalk (and was told to lie on the ground by the task force on their way to Betton’s door) backs up the camera footage. No announcement was made before the door was breached.

This is apparently standard operating procedure in Myrtle Beach. Only in rare cases does the task force seek no-knock warrants. (Task force officials say no-knocks are only “1-2%” of warrants obtained.) But they apparently serve plenty of normal warrants without knocking or announcing their presence.

It seems clear from the testimony in depositions that the 15th Circuit Drug Enforcement Unit doesn’t know any of this. Officer Christopher Dennis, for example, said that the “reasonable” waiting period for someone to answer the door begins the moment police arrive on the scene, not after they knock and announce themselves. This is false. Officer Chad Guess — who, remember, planned the Betton raid — said in a deposition that it’s “not the law to knock and announce. You know, it’s just not. It’s the officer’s discretion, each dictate determines itself.” This, again, is wrong. Officer Belue said under oath that he had no idea how long officers are supposed to wait before forcing entry, and that no one had trained him on the matter.

It’s a convenient misunderstanding of the law. It’s made even more convenient by the task force’s lack of clearly-written policies on serving warrants. Since everyone of the task force remains as ignorant as possible, they’re more likely to be granted immunity when victims of unconstitutional drug raids take them to court.

But these officers may not get off so lightly. Their reports and testimony have been disproven by the 11 seconds of video captured by Betton’s security camera. Officers who swore they knocked and announced their presence now have to explain how those both occurred with zero officers knocking on Betton’s door or even moving their lips.

More lies can be found elsewhere in the report. Officers stated in police reports they heard the sound of Betton’s gun firing. Ballistics testing has shown Betton never fired his handgun, so everyone making that same claim about gunfire is either mistaken about what they heard or, more likely, aligning themselves with the narrative they created in the aftermath of the shooting.

Maybe these officers are hoping their professional ignorance will outweigh their bogus reports. The task force has made it incredibly easy for members to write their own rules when executing warrants. As Balko points, the single most invasive and dangerous thing the task force participates in (~150 times a year) — warrant service — has zero official policies dictating how task force members serve warrants. Apparently, all that time and effort went into creating a cool skull-and-crossbones logo for members to stitch on their not-very-coplike raid gear.

In any event, the court system is the last stop for justice. If any of these officers are ever going to be held accountable for their actions in the Betton raid, it will be here. Every level of oversight task force members answer to has already offered their official blessings for the knock-and-announce warrant that was carried out without knocks or announcements.

What happened to Julian Betton is an entirely predictable product of the failures, culture and mindset of the 15th Circuit Drug Enforcement Unit. And yet to date, state officials won’t even concede that this was a bad outcome, much less do anything to prevent it from happening again. Citing the SLED investigation, South Carolina solicitor Kevin Bracket cleared the officers of any wrongdoing within just a few months. In the three years since the raid, no officer involved has been disciplined, even internally. Nor has any officer has been asked to undergo additional training. No policies have been changed. The DEU never bothered with its own investigation, or even an after-action examination to determine what went wrong.

The police clear themselves of wrongdoing and a pending civil lawsuit has zero motivation effect on the drug unit. The task force is operating outside Constitutional boundaries with no internal guidance or effective oversight. Myrtle Beach-area drug warriors have no desire to clean up their act, and a large settlement paid by taxpayers is unlikely to result in a change of heart.

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